Cat Hairballs: Should I Be Worried?


The ancient Egyptians worshiped cats, just as modern cat lovers do, although we generally don't carve our cat passions onto stone tablets. It's important to keep these lofty thoughts about our felines in mind, particularly when one climbs out of bed in the middle of the night and a bare foot encounters the unmistakable cold and squishy cat hairball.

What Is A Cat Hairball?

What exactly are hairballs, and how concerned should you be if your cat coughs one up? First of all (not to split hairs), it's a fallacy that cats "cough up" up a hairball. The hairball lives in the cat's digestive system (not lungs), so technically the dreaded hairball is being regurgitated. Cats can spend up to 10 percent of their waking hours grooming themselves by licking their fur.

As a result, the hair can sometimes collect in their digestive tract. Hair that is not eliminated into the cat litter box may sometimes be expelled from the other end in the form of a hairball.

The scientific/medical name for a hairball is trichobezoar. It usually appears as a tightly-wound sausage-shaped lump of compressed hair that is vomited up by the cat. An occasional feline hairball is not normally a cause for worry. However hairballs can be deadly for self-grooming pet rabbits, which can't regurgitate.

Hairball Signs And Symptoms

Cat hairballs are not normally an indication of a serious health problem, but if a cat vomits excessively (several times a week for more than a month) it should require a trip to the vet to see if there are other causes.

Cat vomiting can be a sign of many different behaviors or conditions, including the following:

  • Change in diet
  • Eating grass or plants
  • Spoiled food
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney or thyroid disease
  • Ingesting a foreign object
  • Inflammatory bowel disease

The occasional hair-filled puddle coughed up by your cat should not be a cause for alarm for anybody except your carpet cleaner. However, if persistent vomiting occurs, it's time for a trip to the veterinarian or animal hospital to determine if there is a more serious medical condition. In the most severe cases, a feline hairball can cause a blockage in the stomach, intestine or colon. Symptoms could include weight loss, loss of appetite and excessive coughing. Additional signs of a potential blockage might include frequent diarrhea and consistent retching or hacking that does not result in a hairball. If a hairball causes a blockage, surgery may be required to correct the situation and this can be dangerous for the cat and very costly for the owner.

Prevention And Treatment Of Hairballs

One of the most effective and least expensive ways to prevent hairballs in your cat is through daily brushing. There are a variety of combs and brushes available at any pet store to help you rid your cat of the excess fur that might end up causing hairballs. This is an especially important tip for longer-haired cats, or cats who groom themselves more often.

Other preventative measures and hairball treatments include a variety of dry cat food designed to maintain a cat's digestive health. These foods (there are several on the market) generally contain various mild fiber blends to help increase normal elimination.

Providing kitty grass or a supervised visit to the lawn can also help a cat with their digestive problems. Most pet shops and even some grocery stores sell pre-grown containers of cat grass these days. Cats instinctively know when they need to eat grass and will generally do so willingly. These sources of extra fiber, along with exercise, will help get your cat's digestive system moving in most cases.

Most cats will produce hairballs at some point in their lives. Being aware and monitoring the behavior to see if it persists or becomes more severe will indicate whether it is just an inconvenience or a sign of a medical condition that will require professional veterinary advice. Hairball jokes about cats are as common as, well, hairballs. But a responsible and observant owner will be able to tell whether their cat's hairballs are routine or no laughing matter.

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